One of the many problems of playing in drum jams, especially on outside or without microphones, is hurting your hands and playing too loud. Just to hear yourself play is often a struggle. The problem is that each person, in his or her own struggle to be heard usually plays as loud as he can. By the time the lead player comes in and plays, the volume is often at ear-rattling levels. It does not have to be like this if we simply check our own volume and also communicate intelligently with others around us.
For me, when it is too loud it stops being fun. I have noticed at West African dance camps, drum circles and African dance classes that playing as hard and loud as you possibly can is often encouraged by everyone – the lead drummer, dance teacher and the other players. But I think what the teacher really wants but does not know how to communicate (or maybe is not aware of) is that what is actually needed is intensity or a push. Yes, the leader may indeed want the rhythm and dance to accelerate, but it does not have to get louder and more contracted as it speeds up. In fact, just the opposite is true.
Intensity is about dynamics. Dynamics are about changes of pace, rhythm and mood: playing loudly and softly, letting the music breath instead of playing every rhythm all out every time.
Yes, drumming is music! It is fun, it is magic. Let’s play correctly and not hurt our selves!
Dynamics range from how you “attack” the drum (as my Congolese drum teacher says) to where one single note falls in the rhythm. What I mean is you can hit the beat, hit slightly before the beat or slightly after the beat. If you hit slightly before the beat you push the rhythm. If you hit exactly on the beat you hold the rhythm and if you hit after the beat you can pull the rhythm -“drag” the rhythm, in a negative sense.
First, I would like to talk about dragging they rhythm. Many drummers, especially beginners, hit the drum as hard as they can so they can get sound out of the drum or, simply, just to hear themselves. If you haven’t developed proper technique, you can deceive yourself into believing you have it just because you’re hitting the drum very hard. Unfortunately, you will hurt your hands and peoples’ ears in your folly. You will expire fast by playing loud and hitting your drum too hard. When you play tired, your timing can err, causing the rhythm to drag and the ensemble to suffer.
Proper technique means minimal input and maximum output.
Playing too hard can result in tension, contraction and, inevitably, physical pain. Bad technique results in poor habits, so it is important to have a solid fundamental ‘education’ when practicing, which you will hopefully do as much as possible. Acquire a metronome, a helpful device for improving your timing.
In ethnic and African diaspora-related dance classes and performances many musicians, professionals and amateurs alike, often play harder and tense physically when the speed of the rhythm increases. Instead, relax and breath deeply, which focuses you in the present moment and facilitates your effort to flow and swing with what’s happening.
It’s vital to be aware and present within the ensemble to anticipate the changes in tempo and volume. I use signals ( for example, a slow and non-aggresive flapping of my arms to indicate a desire to lower the volume) to indicate changes. Be clear so that your signal doesn’t confuse the others to stop, for example.
When everyone gets it, I make sure I have their attention. Then I give a second hand signal that say’s we are going to speed up now. If people start to play too loudly or tense up I give the relax signal again. For me, this works almost 100% of the time.
Often at a dance class, on the beach, at a performance or in a park, the rhythm you are playing falls down in tempo or starts to drag. This is because people get tired, or they do not have the proper playing technique so they are putting out too much energy. You do not have to expend all your energy in order to play drums well!
How do we improve our technique? The first thing is to learn the basics of drumming. You need to know the basic fundamentals of how to get the correct tone, slap and bass before you step out of your house. If you do no know how, there are plenty of instructional videos, Youtube videos or best yet, find a good teacher.
There are many ways to learn how to improve your speed, endurance and physical conditioning so that your playing sessions are always harmonious before, after and during your playing experience. You can check out my many articles here on those subjects.
No matter what level of playing you are at you need to practice regularly. And if you sit with the drum, and hit the drum over and over eventually you will get the right sound out of it. Remember, you always want to be relaxed and not tense. It is the over tense player that is the weak link in a strong chain of drummers. It is not about how good you play it is about the connection with others and feeling the love through our music and drumming that we help channel and share with others, too!